Drowning Crow by Regina Taylor. Directed by Marion McClinton. Set design by David Gallo. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Video design by Wendall K. Harrington. Original music by Daryl Waters. Choreography by Ken Roberson. Cast: Aunjanue Ellis, Peter Francis James, Anthony Mackie, Alfre Woodard, Stephanie Berry, Paul Butler, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Ebony Jo-Ann, Peter Macon, Curtis McClarin, Roger Robinson, Tracie Thoms, Baron Vaughn.
When a play inspired by Anton Chekhov's The Seagull essentially begins with a performance of "Paper Moon," can that play lie anywhere between brilliant and abysmal?
As it turns out, the answer is yes when that play is Regina Taylor's Drowning Crow, which Manhattan Theatre Club is presenting at the Biltmore Theatre. This play rests so squarely between those extremes, you might well find yourself wanting to cry out at the stage in frustration in hopes the play will take a singular stand on something.
Rest assured, those cries will go unheeded; Drowning Crow is not the worst play of the season, but it's likely to prove the most unnecessary. Its greatest offense is not in anything it says - for it says very little of worth that hasn't been said in countless other works - but that it adapts an acknowledged masterpiece from one of theatre's most revered playwrights and does nothing with the opportunity. It's a play so content to remain forever within the boundary of a one-sentence plot synopsis - "It's a contemporary black version of The Seagull set in the Gullah Islands of South Carolina" - that it almost never comes alive onstage.
The good news, though, is that the show is not a travesty; Taylor dropped the ball with her writing, but it's hard to blame anyone else involved. From accomplished and talented director Marion McClinton to an esteemed design team (David Gallo on sets, Paul Tazewell on costumes, and Ken Billington on lights) and a superb cast led by Alfre Woodard, Anthony Mackie, Peter Francis James, and Aunjanue Ellis, this is a first-rate group of people.
But becoming engaged in their problems is difficult. The plot: Constantine Trip, otherwise known as C-Trip (and played by Mackie) disapproves of his mother Josephine Nicholas Ark Trip (Woodard) for selling out her talent and appearing in unexciting New York plays. She, in turn, doesn't understand his art and resents his rocking the boat, and has turned to a fellow sell-out artist, the famous writer Robert Alexander Trigor (James), who is much admired by the considerably younger Hannah Jordan (Ellis), C-Trip's theatrical and romantic muse. You don't need to know The Seagull to know where this story is going.
In fact, it's probably better if you lack that point of comparison, as Taylor's presentation of the story and the Trip family dynamic lacks almost all the poetry, complexity, and beauty of Chekhov's original. As but one example, Josephine's prevailing attitude is depicted by having her spend much of the second act clad entirely in white; the response intended to be planted in the audience's mind to Josephine's line "You don't know what it took to become black" is never once in doubt. Chekhov's plays thrive on subtlety and nuance, qualities Drowning Crow eschews at nearly every opportunity.
Only in the utilization of meta-theatrical devices does Taylor define this work as a unique entity. The line between reality and theatre is blurred constantly during the first act, with C-Trip's performance art (or at least his perception of life) creating the world in which his mother and the others live. This is an explanation (if a less than dramatically satisfying one) for Josephine's unfeeling callousness and C-Trip's habit of lapsing into rhymed verse, but the specifics are left up to the viewer to decide.
It's only when these uncertainties are at the forefront that the play becomes remotely interesting. McClinton and Gallo do their best to keep them there throughout, with sets depicting suggestive theatre settings in all their two-dimensional, budget-conscious splendor. Much of this is augmented by Wendall K. Harrington's exquisite projections (many of which are incorporated into C-Trip's act); Tazewell's costumes are also right on the money, as are Billington's lights. All the design elements point up the central examination of the boundaries between performance and life for C-Trip, his mother, and the others in their lives.
However, nowhere in Drowning Crow is this point made more clearly than during the first act, following C-Trip's unsuccessful sample performance for his mother in her plantation house's backyard. Most of the cast begins stomping, clapping, and singing the rousing spiritual "Didn't It Rain," led by the charismatic Ebony Jo-Ann (who also starred in Taylor's far superior Crowns in 2002). The point should be made that there's not a single weak link in the cast, but Taylor's message about the impact of performance on life is never clearer than at this moment. This spiritual is the play's one truly memorable event.
Then again, the play's final image - horrifying not for its content, but its audacity to end the show on the most prosaic of notes - would seem to lend credence to the argument that the play's other events never really occurred at all. For audience members at Drowning Crow, or at least those surviving past intermission, it's unlikely to matter much either way.